Where Does Unstable Surface Training Fit In? (Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeee)

Share This:

Q: I’ve frequently read that unstable surface training in a non rehabilitate setting isn’t of that much use, particularly due to the fact that the increased muscle recruitment doesn’t necessarily become functional in other athletic activities.

Im curious where stir the pot comes into all this?

I certainly get great anterior core recruitment but am curious if this will carry over to athletics and other lifts?

What makes the stability ball usage in stir the pot different from that of doing 100 squats on a bosu ball? 

A:  That’s actually a really great question, but something I feel doesn’t require a whole lot of explanation.  For starters, for those not in the know, generally speaking, when most people hear the word “unstable surface training” many will quickly defer to your garden variety items such as stability balls, BOSU balls, wobble boards, and other (borderline) nefarious gadgets that are (often, not always) marketed as the panacea of everything awesome.

If you believe the hype, unstable surface training will do everything from helping to improve your balance to increased muscle activation (particularly in your core) to shaving off a few dress sizes to improving whateverthef***.

Just what she needs: more knee valgus! (<— note heavy sarcasm)

About the only thing unstable surface training can’t do is wash the dishes and solve our national debt.

If I had to describe my general thoughts pertaining to unstable surface training I’d more than likely do it in an interpretive fashion like this:

Which isn’t to say that I’ll dismiss it altogether.  There is some efficacy towards its use – and as you noted it’s namely in the rehabilitative setting when we’re working with athletes or clients coming off an injury and we’re trying to reestablish proper motor patterns, work on muscle activation, or otherwise reintroduce (and progress) them to external loading.

Unfortunately, at some point within the last decade (give or take), a bunch of personal trainers and coaches decided it would be a good idea to take data extrapolated from the physical therapy realm – and in particular data used with INJURED patients – and apply it with their healthy clients.  You know, to be functional and stuff.

The end result was (and has been) anything but ho-hum.  Instead of people actually doing something of relevance – like actually being able to do a push-up correctly, or being able to perform a hip hinge or lunge pattern without making my eyes bleed – we have a bunch of people doing things like 1-legged curls on BOSU balls, and trainers – in an effort to look unique and different – wasting people’s time (not to mention money) by doing shit like this:

I’ll concede that it looks impressive, and I’d if I were going to speak candidly I’d probably have a better shot of tossing a touchdown pass to He-Man in the next Super Bowl than being able to do it myself.

But that’s beside the point.  For healthy individuals who are looking to get bigger, faster, stronger, leaner, prevent injuries, increase power, move better, wrestle a grizzly, be able to say the alphabet backwards, or be able to wear white past Labor Day, unstable surface training is not the answer.

My business partner, Eric Cressey, actually wrote an entire book on the topic titled The Truth About Unstable Surface Training, which delves into how its use, application, and efficacy has been overtly saturating the fitness world for the wrong reasons.

Likewise, given the main “argument” for those who advocate unstable surface training is to help improve one’s balance, I’d encourage you to read John Kiefer’s article, Unstable Surface for Stability Training (AKA Clown School).

The fact of the matter is, the floor works just fine….and unstable surface training probably does more for DECREASING athleticism, strength, balance and movement quality than it helps.

Stealing a section from Keifer’s article:

Think about when you step onto an icy or oily surface. You instantly tense up, you almost literally can’t perform certain movements because the nervous system senses the instability of the environment and fires in resistant ways to keep you balanced. In this process, it also shuts down the ability to produce maximum force (your strength, power, hypertrophy and speed all go down the shitter. Think about it, if you start to slip in one direction and your reflexes caused your muscles to fire with maximum force against that motion—a motion that may be inevitable at that point, like falling—then you risk tearing muscle or connective tissue. The body is trying to protect you by making you weaker.

Which brings us to Stir-the-Pot.

This exercise in of itself constitutes as “unstable surface training,” and like I said above….I don’t dismiss it altogether.  We actually do employ a decent amount of this type of training into our programs at Cressey Performance – albeit not in the context that will make you want to punch a hole in the wall.

Since we work with a crap-load of baseball players, one drill we like to use to help increase rotator cuff activation is a bottoms-up 1-arm kettlebell carry:

Since we’re currently on that side of the fence, we incorporate bottoms-up variations with things like DB presses, 1-arm bulgarian split squats, and Turkish get-ups.

Something to consider, however, is this is in conjunction with movements like squats, deadlifts, rows, chin-ups, hip thrusts, and the like which are done on STABLE surfaces and which help to get people strong.

With regards to the stir-the-pot, I simply see this as:

1.  A great way to train the anterior core.

2.  A great way to “progress” the plank. I find it comical that people brag about how long they can hold a plank for – the longest I’ve heard is 17 minutes – when I KNOW that all they’re doing is hanging on their lower back and hip flexors in order to get the job done, which isn’t doing them any favors.

I find a lot of validity with planks and their numerous variations – especially when working with someone with chronic low back issues (as the name of the game is spinal stability/endurance, and teaching neutral spine) – but there comes a point where there’s a rate of diminishing returns, especially when people make them into a dick measuring contest.

I don’t know what the female equivalent would be here:  high-heel measuring contest?????

Either way I’d much rather make planks more challenging than longer, for the sake of making them longer.  Can you think of anything more boring?  I mean, outside of NASCAR is there anything?

And besides, this isn’t the type of exercise that opens itself to “repetition” anyways.  The objective isn’t to do them for “100 reps” as compared to the “100 squats on a BOSU ball” comment from the original question.  Instead, the objective is to learn to recruit and engage the anterior core and RESIST extension.  This is all about QUALITY of movement – and not compensating – than it is about QUANTITY.

To that end, I do feel this is an exercise that will help to improve performance – albeit not under the guise that I feel it’s because you’ve somehow improved your balance or recruitment of anything.

Wrapping Up

Again, this isn’t to insinuate that unstable surface training should be avoided at all costs – there’s ABSOLUTELY a time and place for it’s inclusion in a program.  However, I do feel that it’s WOEFULLY overrated, overused, and quite frankly a waste of time for most healthy individuals who walk into a weight room to get better.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

Share This Post:


Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

I don’t share email information. Ever. Because I’m not a jerk.

Comments for This Entry

Leave a Comment